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7 ways the Pixel 2 camera could beat the iPhone's

Google says the Pixel 2 has the highest-rated camera of any smartphone. Here's how it plans to beat the competition.

James Martin/CNET

Judging from just the specs, the Google Pixel 2's rear camera doesn't seem all that impressive. It has a single 12-megapixel camera compared to the 12-megapixel dual camera setup of high-end rivals like Apple's iPhone 8 Plus and Samsung's Galaxy Note 8.

But here's where the Pixel 2 could stand out: processing power. Last year's comparison between the original Pixel and the iPhone 7 Plus proved that two cameras are not always better than one. Google's combination of hardware and software produced better results than the iPhone in most categories.

The Pixel 2 launches on Oct. 19. Here are the Pixel 2 camera features we can't wait to see in action this time around.

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1. HDR+

Last year's Pixel had Google's HDR+ image processing, which combines multiple underexposed shots into an image with a broader tonal range than any single exposure would have. The shots looked incredible on the original Pixel, especially in low light. On the Pixel 2, Google has increased the dynamic range and refined the technology for what could result in even better overall shots with a higher contrast.

2. Fused Video Stabilization

The Pixel 2 is also using what Google calls Fused Video Stabilization. It's Google jargon that means it uses both optical and digital image stabilization to reduce shake and avoid blur. This results in smoother video recording and potentially sharper low-light performance than its predecessor.

3. Portrait mode

Google didn't say that the Pixel 2 has a better portrait mode than the iPhone 8 Plus, but it did say it can create the same blurred background effect with a single camera. It uses computational photography and machine learning to create a depth map of the shot and figure out what to defocus. And the Pixel 2 has this feature on both the front and rear. The iPhone 8 Plus needs information from the two rear lenses to create the effect and only the forthcoming iPhone X has portrait mode on both sides.

4. Same features on both models

This one isn't so much a camera feature, but more a nice perk when you buy a Pixel 2. Both Pixel 2 models have the same camera, so you can get the same features for $200 less on the smaller Pixel 2 instead of paying $850 for the larger XL. To get portrait mode on the iPhone 8 you have to buy the larger and more expensive 8 Plus which starts at $799 -- or you'll have to wait for the $999 iPhone X.

5. More storage

Google is offering free unlimited storage on its Google Photos platform with every Pixel 2 purchase. That means you can store all the 4K videos you want. But there's a small caveat: it's only unlimited in full resolution for about two years or so. Google will no longer store your new images and video in their original quality. Apple's only gives you 5GB of free storage on its cloud based iCloud service.

6. Google Lens

Ever wanted to learn more about a piece of art or landmark standing in front of you? The Pixel 2 camera will be able to answer questions about the world around you with a feature called Google Lens. It's basically a search engine on your camera and uses Google Assistant and machine learning to identify labels, flyers, images and text around you. Samsung does something similar with Bixby vision on its phones, but it seems like more of a natural progression of Google's search engine on the Pixel.  

7. AR

Google has been experimenting with augmented reality on mobile devices for a while with Tango, but until now AR required depth-sensing cameras. Using Google's ARCore platform, the Pixel 2 is now able to do a lot of the same things Tango did with its regular non-depth-sensing camera. In the keynote demo at the Pixel event, Google introduced animated stickers of Stranger Things characters that can look like they're projected into the real world and be captured in photos and video. It's similar to what iPhones can do with Apple's ARKit. It's still too early to know which AR platform is better, but Google may have an edge based on its experience on AR with Google Tango.

But until we put the Pixel 2 to the test outside the demo room, the jury is still out on the Pixel 2's camera. You'll have to check back to find out the results of our camera comparisons once the Pixel 2 is out in the wild.